Black History Month is a start, Bristol Uni must do more to celebrate diversity

Not enough students know that Royal Fort Gardens and The Beckford both celebrate influential black women


October was Black History Month, a now annual institution devoted to informing British people about Black culture, outstanding individuals and their valuable contributions that are too often forgotten.

While Bristol University students are aware of celebrity alumni like David Walliams and Simon Pegg, very few know that Bristol also has many BAME alumni who have made a remarkable impact in the UK and internationally.

The uni acknowledges that BAME students are underrepresented, of Bristol’s 2021 intake, 19.5 per cent of British undergraduate students were from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds, up from 14.5 per cent in 2016.

Hilary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President of the National Union of Students, graduated from Bristol with a degree in Social Policy in 2019. She talked openly about her struggle adjusting to university life: “Coming to Bristol, I started to become more aware of my race and identity. I was a Black woman in a space where there weren’t many other Black women.”

Hilary’s experience shows that the university still has a long way to go to recruit a diverse student population where all students feel accepted. Hilary said that one of the main things that encouraged her to strive for academic success was “seeing other women like [her] do the same.”

There are some representations of black women around the campus, but somehow very few students are aware of them or know their stories. Nearly every Bristol student will have walked through Royal Fort Gardens or had a drink in The Beckford in Senate House, without knowing that both celebrate influential black women.

Carmen Beckford

The Beckford Bar is named after Carmen Beckford, a former midwife of Jamaican descent who was crucial to the establishment of St Paul’s Carnival in 1967. As the first Race Relations Officer in Bristol, she worked alongside Paul Stephenson, who spearheaded the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. This improved race relations in the city dramatically, and she would later become the first black person in the South West to receive an MBE for her work. In 2018, Beckford was named one of the “Seven Saints of St Pauls” along with 6 other Bristolians who campaigned for better race relations in the city.

Asher Craig, councillor for St George West and close friend of Beckford’s said after her death in 2016: “The legacy of Carmen Beckford’s contribution towards helping to create a more equal and integrated city must never be forgotten and I will ensure that it lives on.”

Henrietta Lacks

The statue of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were the first living human cells to survive and multiply outside the body and changed the course of modern medicine, stands in the Royal Fort Gardens. Although she was not a Bristolian, Henrietta Lacks’ statue in the Royal Fort Gardens is the first public sculpture in the UK of a black woman made by a black woman.

Known as HeLa cells, taking the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names, subsequent research led to some of the most important medical advances to date, including the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, IVF and Covid-19 research. The statue was unveiled in October 2021 and marked the 70th anniversary of Lacks’ death.

Bristolian sculptor Helen Wilson-Roe said “as a child growing up in Bristol there were no statues of Black women that I could identify with. So, knowing that my children and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to see Henrietta’s statue is fantastic, especially at this time when Bristol is starting to address its past.”

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

A South African politician and doctor named by New African Magazine as one of the Top 100 most influential Africans, Nkosazana has served in the South African parliament, including as Minister of Health under Nelson Mandela. She was pivotal in coordinating South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Arriving at Bristol University in 1976 after being exiled from South Africa because of her active involvement in the underground South African Students Organisation, Nkosazana completed her medical degree two years later.

Thangham Debbonaire

Thangam is the Labour MP for Bristol West and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons. She holds her seat with a vote of 47,028 – the highest of any UK constituency.

Thangam is 55 and gained her MSc in Management, Development and Social Responsibility from Bristol in the 1990s.

A life-long campaigner against domestic violence, Thangam worked here in Bristol for the Women’s Aid Federation of England, a charity devoted to ending domestic violence against women and children.

She has also published many papers and books about preventing domestic violence in the UK. 

Vanessa Kisuule 

Vanessa is a 32-year-old slam poet who graduated from Bristol University in 2012, with a degree in English Literature. 

Like Thangam, Vanessa represents the city of Bristol. She was the Bristol City Poet, from 2018 to 2020 and has featured on BBC Radio 1, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Blue Peter, Don’t Flop and TEDx in Vienna.

Vanessa has spoken about the importance of celebrating “black joy and mundaneness” which she feels the establishment often “does not acknowledge because they are so focused on black trauma.”

Dame Calliopa Pearlette Louisy

St Lucia resident Calliopa Pearlette Louisy, who became the first female Governor-General of the Caribbean country in 1997, is 76 years old and studied for a PhD in education at Bristol in 1991.

Previously working as a teacher, her studies focused on tertiary education in small disadvantaged states in St Lucia, where she has made an incredible contribution to the development of education.

The university awarded her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1999.

Keeping the conversation going

There is increasing pressure on British universities to ensure that Black History Month is not an isolated event and to ensure that people from all backgrounds are recruited into higher education.

In a recent interview, Vice Chancellor Evelyn Welch pledged that Bristol Uni would increase its efforts to ensure that all students feel encouraged and nurtured.

Part of this effort should extend to celebrating the achievements of black and ethnic alumni that Bristol has in its own history but are too little known by current students.

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Featured image before edits via YouTube